Sunday, December 5, 2010

In the beginning there was Sintel

I have been thinking about posting movie reviews and the like for some time. I suppose I was partly inspired by The Escapist. Now the Escapist is a website, predominantly about computer and video games, that takes a much more mature approach than most of it's peers, which differs from mainstream media with respect to gaming in that it actually knows what it is talking about. The articles are thoughtful and usually provide a deeper viewpoint of the discussed topic, which I feel helped me to adopt a more thoughtful approach to my analysis of, well, everything. Perhaps that is why I no longer enjoy many things the way I once did. Ignorance is bliss, after all. But regardless, I find myself often thinking rather complex thoughts about matters of little consequence, such as movies, and thinking that it's a waste to have such thoughts, to construct such arguments in my head, only to forget them in short order.

However I did not want to "dilute" my existing blog, preferring to leave that to discuss what could loosely be termed my "work", obviously the solution was to start a new blog. I put it off for a while, unsure if it was worth the effort (and, to be honest, afraid that I would commit too much time to it, drawn by the lure of venting my bile in any form outside of my own internal monologues, only to become disenfranchised by the inevitable absence of listeners). But today I finally watched Sintel, and I was so overcome I finally made my decision to write, if only for myself. And so, I shall begin.

Today I watched Sintel. If you don't know what that is, it's an animated short movie from the Blender Foundation:

The poster is a masterpiece. It invoked in me a sensation that is very hard to describe, a longing for something I had long ago lost and never realized until now. Do you remember when you were young, and you watched some animated movie, a Disney perhaps, full of magic and wonder? You saw the protagonist, perhaps a dog or stable boy or baby elephant, and you were drawn into their world, humble though it was? And before long you cared for them; you smiled when they did, you felt sad when they cried. But then the movie took you to a dark place, a place where, young as you were, you forgot that every movie has a happy ending and you feared for your new friends. Things grew darker and darker, and finally it seemed all hope really was lost. And then, glorious victory! The sun rose, the evil was vanquished, the hero proved his virtue, and everyone lived happily ever after.

I don't have a word for the sensation, for the heady mix of many emotions, or a description for such movies. The closest I can come is "epic". That at least suggests the dramatic arc, though it also brings other attributes to mind which may not be relevant (these days when we talk of epic movies we generally refer to the scale of events and visual spectacle, vast armies clashing on the battlefield and such like, rather than how they affected us personally). But regardless, I have not felt the sensation in some time. I have read some brilliant books, but as vividly written as they may have been, books lack the sights, the sounds and music, that can play such a big role. Some video-games came close, the Sands of Time trilogy for one, but recently games have disappointed me more often than not, on the story front at least - something I'm sure I will discuss in the future.

The question is, who is the culprit? Is it the media industry? Have they changed, targeted new audiences, or just forgotten how to craft such a story? Or is it me? Have I become jaded? More demanding, less tolerant of anything that doesn't fit my exacting expectations? Have I just "seen it all before", and nothing moves me anymore? Well, I know I have become jaded and I am less tolerant, and I have seen so much that there's little now that feels new, that much I know for a fact. But does that really mean it's all my fault, that the old movies aren't as good as I remember them to be, if I watched them now (bearing in mind that I am no longer of the age they were written for), would I see how terrible they really were?

I honestly don't know. I fear that it is true, that I don't feel the same way about movies because I can't, because I am incapable of enjoying them in the same way. I'm not using the term "fear" lightly; I really am afraid that I have lost something that I can never get back. It shouldn't be important, but somehow, for me, it is. For that reason I have been putting off watching Nausicaa for well over a year, though it's only recently that I'm starting to understand why. You see, I have very vague memories of watching Nausicaa a very, very long time ago. Yet those memories seem to carry with them echos of a strong emotional experience. Somehow, I'm scared that when I watch it, the timing won't be right or I'll have too much on my mind or be too worried about work or will be interrupted halfway, and I just won't feel the same way again - then I'll have lost something, something intangible but somehow important, forever.

Still, I have hope. Recently The Rescuers was on television. This is a very old animated movie about a pair of mice who work for the UN (OK, I could be mistaken about the international coalition of mice that they take orders from being the UN), who are dispatched to help a young girl who is essentially being used for slave labor. I didn't watch the entire thing, only bits, but I enjoyed what I saw, in a nostalgic way at least. In fact, I found some of it to be very impressive, though not perhaps in a way I would have appreciated when I was young. So perhaps it isn't me, perhaps it is what I'm seeing. On the other hand, some modern CG movies are also very inspiring. The Incredibles was very well done, it took you through that arc of despair and triumph that I tried to describe above, and it inspired some strong emotions in me - though not all good ones, I feel somehow bitter about it today. Up was similarly epic and emotional, and I felt had a much better story that incorporated those fantasy elements of old - talking dogs piloting biplanes for example. Wall-E, was perhaps the closest thing to what I mean in the last few years, though my unwillingness to feel emotions for mechanical objects may have interfered with my enjoyment somewhat. How to Train Your Dragon I think met all the "criteria", I really enjoyed it and I cannot help but feel that I should have felt as much for it as I did for the old classics, but I didn't, not quite. I guess the last movie I can recall really feeling this way for was probably Titan A.E. - not a perfect movie, but under-appreciated in my opinion.

Regardless, and I know I am repeating myself here, lately I have been missing that sensation. And, I suppose, I have been desperate to reclaim it, and afraid that I just might not be able to. Something about the poster for Sintel made me feel it might be the first movie in a long time to bring back those emotions. It clearly shows a desperate struggle, two unlikely souls trying to stay together as the currents of a cruel world rip them apart, an immense, seemingly indomitable evil looming over all.

So, feeling a sort of desperation to enjoy the movie, I kept putting off watching it. I didn't know whether to watch it on my own, with no interference, or with someone, to share the experience. I didn't know whether to watch it at night, when it would be dark, or in the morning when the house would be empty. And so on. But today I finally watched it. I pulled the sofa closer to the TV, grabbed some snacks, closed the curtains, and watched it.

I was very disappointed.

This is entirely my own fault. In my own mind I had built up my expectations: it would have the epic journey across a dangerous world that the original Land Before Time did so well. It would have a terrifying, evil and seemingly unbeatable antagonist, like Jaffar at the end of Aladdin. It would have characters who I would love and care for as I watched them overcome adversity to form a powerful bond while discovering the magic in their own world. It would single-handedly recapture the former glory of the media industry and prove to me that I had not lost the capacity to truly enjoy cinema.

This is a cardinal sin for me. I always try to avoid preconceived notions and expectations - if there's a movie or game I know I'm going to watch or play, I avoid even the previews. Only if there's something that I've no idea about do I watch previews. That, and I read the reviews for remakes and adaptations - I'm sick of people making money off me by exploiting something I once cared about. But I digress. The point is I always try to approach movies with an open mind, but this time I utterly failed.

I'm not going to say too much about Sintel, other than the fact that it could never have been what I hoped for. And while it was perhaps very good, I am having a hard time appreciating that today. Why? Because it stabbed me in the heart. It was a short movie, a little too short I think to really draw you in, but still it caught me and made me care, and then the end arrived before I realized it and it stabbed me in the heart.

I literally didn't know what to do after watching. I thought about complaining to the makers, but eventually I was able to accept that it was stupid to try to blame them for not making the movie I wanted. I tried talking to a friend, but I couldn't really tell him how it had affected me and I still felt hurt afterwards. I tried to ignore it and wait for the feeling to pass, but I just kept going over it in my head. So finally I decided I needed to write about it, and I opened this blog and got started.

They say that if you can make your audience feel an emotion, whatever it is, then you have succeeded. Sintel certainly succeeded by that measure, and perhaps by tomorrow I will be able to look at it more objectively. Perhaps that's what I need, objectivity. Perhaps this vague feeling that I claim to remember never truly existed at all, just a product of nostalgia, a yearning for the good old days, and my search to reclaim it a fools errand. I hope not, but sometimes I wonder if it really matters, and if the very idea is holding me back, drawing my eyes to the past rather than the future.

Now, for my own sake, I want to discuss Sintel in a little more detail. PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT WATCHED THE MOVIE! Spoilers abound, you have been warned. Also please note that this is not meant as a formal review, much of what I say will be a matter of taste, I hope that such things are not taken as criticism and I hope not to cause offense.

First, a bit of rationalization on my part. This is a defense mechanism I suppose; when I don't like an event in a movie, such as someone dying in a stupid way, I often reject it, arguing that it is not possible and therefore not to be taken seriously.

When Sintel killed Scales, it was tragic. I keep imagining the poor thing, the sense of betrayal it must have felt, the horror that must have filled her as she realized what she had done. It hurts me to think about it, even now. But I can't accept it. Going by her face, she must have aged twenty years. How can she travel for that long and not realize it, never think about what happened to Scales, about how he(she) must have grown up by now? Yes, I realize that's not the point of the story, that point can be rationalized or not if we choose to, but for me, I cannot accept it. Having said that, the moment when she sees the scar, then truly sees her reflection truly and realizes how much she has aged, that has to be one of the most dramatic eye-opening (and certainly horrifying) moments ever, rival to the end of The Usual Suspects.

The movie as a whole was not given the time it deserved. The back-story, about how Sintel met and lost Scales, was too brief. It got the job done, but it would have been better if it was longer. The "journey" montage was even more compressed, that really needed to be longer. It was over before I had finished processing the fact that Scales was gone. And the transition to "current" time was perhaps too explicit - while seeing the bandit's view was interesting, I felt it made the journey seem shorter, perhaps if we just faded from the various travel scenes straight back to her face as she sat in the hut (without revisiting the ambush) it may have helped the "a long time has passed" vibe. But that's just my suspicion, I have no idea if it actually would have worked better or not.

On the animation front it was very impressive, the environments were brilliant and I especially liked the interior of the dragon's cave. Some of the animations were a bit stiff - Scales' first flight especially felt quite wooden, I thought perhaps slowing down the wings or using some motion blur might have helped? Sintel herself was well done, for example I was quite impressed when she was shown with wet hair - we tend to forget how much of a change that can make. Having said that, what was up with that single shoulder pad? Why would a street urchin have a single piece of armor strapped to her shoulder? Or is it supposed to be decorative, like jewelery or something?

Finally, I felt some brilliant design elements were underutilized, which (almost surprisingly) makes me feel they should not have been so well designed in the first place. I suppose that doesn't make sense, but when we see a lot of creative effort put into something we feel it should be made use of, otherwise we feel there was not point. Specifically I'm talking about that weapon she holds. It was clearly very carefully designed, receiving for example much more attention than her knife, and we get camera close-ups and everything, yet somehow it didn't seem to merit the attention - in the end it was just a spear she happened to pick up and use? And the symbol with the tree, that apparently signified dragon country, I felt there was more story there that we should have been made privy to.

In the end, even though it was too short for the story it was trying to tell and didn't have the end that I wanted, I feel that the movie is great in it's own way, and it showed a tremendous amount of promise. And when we consider what it is, an open movie made with open tools that tells a mature story a big studio wouldn't dare to and that succeeded in making me feel such strong emotions that I had to open a blog just to talk about it, then I guess it is quite amazing.

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